Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

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I love the sweeping grandeur of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The characters built on each other, and I felt I was living through the experiences with them. Steinbeck’s purpose to the novel is found in the subtle and not so subtle conversations and actions of the fleshed-out characters, and in my two reads of the novel, I’ve been amazed by Steinbeck’s command of the language.

Of Mice and Men is a sixth the size and, unfortunately, I thought had a comparatively lesser portion of the grandeur and subtly. It is  unfair to compare the two: one is a novella, the other a sweeping generational epic. Yet, my read of Of Mice and Men was colored by my comparisons to East of Eden. Reading Steinbeck’s novella reminded me of reading Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome recently: it just didn’t equal the longer, better work by the author, although it was still well-written and emotionally charged, and addressed an intriguing subject: innocence and guilt.

I still loved the characters (who felt real), the setting (a community near Salinas), and the story. But Of Mice and Men was so short, I found it lacking simply for what it was not. I wanted more: I wanted to be swept away.

Lennie is a gentle giant, a mentally retarded man more than six feet tall who loves to carry mice in his pocket to “pet” them. George is his ever faithful friend, helping him navigate the unfair world. Lennie’s innocent strength is his downfall, and George can’t always come to the rescue.

Chris book-a-rama recently wrote about the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse,” which inspired Steinbeck’s title. Burns apparently wrote the poem after he overturned the mouse’s home with his plow.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

(Read the full poem, and listen to it read, at Chris’s post.)

A note on reading this book: I did something I never do. I bought this book without opening it. I had already picked up a half dozen books at the thrift store (89 cents each) , and then I saw this calling to me so I grabbed it at the last minute as I walked to check out. Well, when I came home and opened it, I realized it was covered with writing. Highlighting, commentary, questions for the teacher,  words circled multiple times with lines leading to the margin saying “Vocab!!” I was annoyed at first, but as I read the novella, I became amused by this girl’s commentary. In the end, it was kind of a fun experience to read it as if I were in eighth grade, reading it for the first time for a class. I wouldn’t suggest that for your first read, but it was, in retrospect, okay and amusing for me.

This post doesn’t really say much about what Of Mice and Men contains. I feel I am talking around the subject. But in my opinion, at 103 pages, the novella doesn’t seem to need much discussion. It’s so self-explanatory, so complete, and so heart-breaking just as it is. As the previous reader of my book wrote in the margin at the end, “I just died inside” reading this novella. And that was a good thing.

I’ll let Of Mice and Men speak for itself.

Do you like reading previous reader’s commentary in the margins of your books? Could you have put up with it? It kind of drove me nuts, but it was okay.

Did you read Of Mice and Men in high school? How did you discuss it? It just seems so self explanatory to me.

Reviewed on May 7, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

    • Chris, yeah it was like reading it *with someone*. At first, I was totally annoyed because she, um, sounded like an airhead.

      Example: * “Morose! What does this mean?! VOCAB WORD!” *

      But then I got to appreciate it more. She’s kind of like a friend.

      And thank you for posting that Robert Burns poem. I think seeing that recently got me to read this book sooner rather than later.

  • I honestly can’t remember if we read this or if just watched the movie in HS, which is kind of pathetic…still, I’ve found in other cases that I love Steinbeck’s longer works far more than his shorter ones. I do want to read it (or re-read, if that’s the case), but other Steinbeck works call my name more.

    • Amanda, I am looking forward to the movie! Although I suspect it won’t be the same, without the beautiful Steinbeck language. Yeah, I’m suspecting the longer Steinbeck works are more for me too. Can’t wait to read GRAPES OF WRATH next, which I know you love!

  • I haven’t read any Steinbeck so I might try to tackle this book first so I don’t have the same expectations. It sounds good, just more direct, perhaps, than Garden of Eden? I think having the commentary would be slightly annoying, but also interesting. Neat to see what someone else thought, but I feel it might end up coloring my judgement, if that makes sense.
    .-= Amy´s last post on blog ..Review: Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft =-.

    • Amy, East of Eden was majestic. Mice of Men was good. I guess reading the good one before the majestic sweeping incredible take-your-breath-away novel is a good thing. But the other is well worth the 600 pages!! If you only read one of the two, go with East of Eden, I say. (Although I know Amanda loves Grapes of Wrath even more! I can’t wait to read that one too.)

  • Hi Rebecca,
    Nice review! But you know, I think this story’s real strength *is* its short length. If it were drawn out to epic proportions then it wouldn’t give you the short, sharp punch in the guts that it most certainly does.

    Of Mice and Men isn’t about grandeur, nor is it about life on an epic scale. It’s about two men arriving at a monumental point both in their friendship and in their lives. It’s a point where nothing will ever be the same again for either of them (especially one of them, eh? :)), and in the course of exploring such a powerful concept (for want of a better word) I think Steinbeck has created one of the most incredible pieces of literature one is ever likely to read. I think it’s perfect, although as you may or may not know, I’m somewhat bias when it comes to this particular writer 🙂

    What a wonderful bonus though Rebecca to have the marginalia of the young girl. Sure, like most young uns she seems not too be all that enamored with Steinbeck, but at least she’s had some exposure to him, which will hopefully encourage her back to Steinbeck in later life. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but with her passing such a sublime closing comment, perhaps not.

    Anyway thanks for sharing your thoughts, and those of the mystery annotator.

    P.S. I mentioned you in my last post. as linked below
    .-= Rob´s last post on blog ..On The Radar: A biography on Constance Garnett, a lazy Russian novel, an anthology celebrating Prague’s literary renaissance, and another New York literary anthology =-.

  • Rob, I think you have a fair point. This would not have worked at all had it been stretched out. I have only read these two Steinbeck novels, and I guess it’s obvious from this which of the two I loved most, though! I definitely need to read more!

    I definitely think the annotator loved this novel. I suspect she’s the type that loves school and will be a reader for life. She really did enjoy reading it closely, I think. So yes, like Chris said, it was kind of like making a friend to read along with! And nice to have a lot into the workings of a young (because I can’t imagine she’s older than 15) girl reading a classic novel for a class!

    lol about the lazy Russian novel. I just couldn’t resist tweeting when it had a cover like that!

  • Rebecca, so glad you were finally able to read this one! I never read it at school, but I did read it as a teen, and it really broke my heart.

    I think much of what Rob says is very astute. I think that part of this novella’s power is in how succinct and forthright it is. It makes that punch to the gut all the more devastating, swift and brutal.

    I need to re-read this one, I know, but after a decade, I’m still reeling…
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“Howards End” by E.M. Forster =-.

    • Steph, it didn’t touch me quite so much — maybe it’s length let me rush through it too fast — but I have to revise my previous thoughts. It is the right length. Couldn’t have been longer and been so memorable and powerful!

  • Reading marginalia can be a really rewarding experience, insightful and entertaining. I will admit however that I much prefer a nice blank page. Otherwise I find myself distracted from the story. I think you’re right that a first read should be blank, but a second or third could benefit from marginalia.
    .-= Trisha´s last post on blog ..Book Blogger Hop =-.

    • Aarti, oh I’ve heard great things about GRAPES OF WRATH so I’m sorry to hear you disliked it. Steinbeck certainly captures human nature — which is not always pretty. This one is pretty sad 🙁

  • I loved this book when I read it a year or so ago. My husband directs a professional regional theatre, and we did a “read along” with the stage play — so if you ever get the chance — I highly recommend seeing the stage production. At least ours was OUTSTANDING.
    .-= Melissa Mc (Gerbera Daisy Mom)´s last post on blog ..In The Mail =-.

    • Melissa Mc, wow, I can’t imagine this as a stage production. I have the movie out from the library so I think I’ll start with that. I’m interested to see how they translate Steinbeck’s wonderful descriptions to the screen, and I’d be very curious to see how they convert it to the STAGE!

  • I remember reading Of Mice and Men at some point in my high school career, but I don’t recall if it was assigned. What *was* assigned in 9th grade was Grapes of Wrath.

    Now as an adult, when I think of Steinbeck, I always put him in that category of classic authors that are great to baby step into. You know, like, if you want to start reading the classics, Steinbeck just isn’t all that intimidating. His language is simple and his characters are real. I find that one can be fulfilled by superficial readings or deep readings.
    .-= christina´s last post on blog ..19 Varieties of Gazelle =-.

    • christina, Interesting comment on baby stepping in to classics. This definitely is one that people should not be afraid of, but I can say that of many of the classics I love!

  • I literally just got a copy of Of Mice and Men yesterday for $1 at some garage sale! I haven’t read any Steinbeck so looks like his shorter work might be a good start. Steph mentioned Of Mice and Men a couple of times and I got really curious.

    About annotation, I have a copy of Animal Farm by Orwell that is heavily marked all over the place, and that’s why I’ve been avoiding it so far. But your experience made me have second thoughts. I may just try it to see how it goes 🙂

  • This is the only Steinbeck I’ve read. Grapes of Wrath is the one that’s really caught my eye, but I was intimidated by the size so I decided to start with a novella first. It certainly got me excited to read more Steinbeck!

    As for annotations, I do find it interesting to have them when I’m also reading the novel for a class because not everyone has the same interpretation. But I hate it when there are massive amounts of highlighting because I find that very distracting. Writings in the margin don’t bother me that much.
    .-= Christina´s last post on blog ..Between Two Rivers =-.

    • Christina, I’m looking forward to GRAPES OF WRATH. As for highlighting, this book would not have been for you. I’d say 80% of each page was highlighted in various colors. lol! It seemed to take away the purpose of highlighting to be for emphasis….

  • I think that the comments on the margins of this book add charm and history to it. But that’s only my opinion and the main reason why I love used books so much. I just love the history behind it. As far as Of Mice and Men goes, I read it in college but I can’t recall the quality of Steinbeck’s writing (which calls for a reread). I do however remember that the story was indeed heartbreaking.
    .-= lilly´s last post on blog ..The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine =-.

    • lilly, usually, I prefer NOT to know the history of the used books (what THAT dirty spot is, exactly) and the highlighting in this was excessive, but it did make for a fun reading experience!

  • I read Of Mice and Men in high school and loved it. It brought me to tears as did Grapes of Wrath (I haven’t read East of Eden yet). There is also a play version of Of Mice and Men that I saw while in high school on one of the stages at the Globe Theater in San Diego. It was well done and quite powerful.
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..Reading Notes =-.

    • Stefanie, I really need to get to GRAPES OF WRATH. A previous commenter mentioned the stage play of OF MICE AND MEN and I am very curious to see how it could be conveyed on stage. I also just checked out the movie — maybe that would be similar!

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